October 02, 2008

Plebs and Patriots

In the years immediately prior to Cincinnatus's dictatorship, Rome was wracked with civil strife between the tribunes and the consuls. At one point the capital itself was seized by mutinying slaves- Livy has a wonderful description of the chaos of that night. Furthermore the tribunes told the Commons not to serve with the army whilst the consuls attempted to conscript them. Only when the forces of Tusculum marched on Rome, aided by the consul, were the slaves evicted and the capital retaken. The incident was merely the culmination of a period of social disunity leading on from the arrest of Caeso, Cincinnatus's son, and his flight. This was a key episode in Livy's history- because it brings out the arguments that Plebeians and Patricians made about the state, arguments that in my view were structurally forced on them and arguments which to a large extent explain the nature of Livy's Republicanism.

The point here is to remember the original political dynamic of Roman life. The Roman soldier was invincible because of his commander but his commander was impotent without the soldier behind him. For the senate, the threat was always the ultimate one of leading armies to glory elsewhere- Coriolanus comes to mind- for the people it was always the threat to withdraw their labour as soldiers. So the constant themes of exile for aristocrats and resistance to conscription from the people are not accidental, but come back to the structure of Roman military life and ultimately to the Roman state's raison d'etre, its fighting forces. This point leads onto another- it leads to the crises of Roman life often being crises about the recruitment of armies just before a military expedition. At this point, especially after a period of social strife, the people were temporarily in a position of power visa vis their richer neighbours but they were also in a position of great danger- with all the disadvantages of war to be concerned about.

We can see how this affected the arguments of both sides, as presented by Livy, when we look at the years leading up to Cincinnatus's consulship and his speech on assuming that office. When the capital was seized by the slaves, the tribunes, according to Livy, 'were so blinded with passion that they insisted the seizure of the Capital was a mere piece of play acting got up to divert the attention of the commons' from political questions. (III 16). The tribune's argument had to be that Rome was not threatened- as soon as Rome became threatened, the people united behind the senate and were subject to military discipline. The tribunes suspected that the entire device of emergency was a mere device- it was a trick, a ploy to hold off political argument for a while.

On the other side, the patricians saw this as a rebellion against the whole idea of Rome. Cincinnatus in his speech reflects on the tribune's claims and dismisses them in the name of Roman unity. He declaimed to the people 'I ask the tribunes- is this what you call helping the people- to deliver them, helpless and unarmed, into the enemy's hands to have their throats cut?' and accuses them of attempting to create a 'state within a state'. The suggestion is important- what Cincinnatus is doing here is finessing the quarrel- in that the tribunes believed the state was being run in the private interests of the few- but doing so in a way that identifies his own party with that of Rome, in a sense that the tribunes who refused to fight for Rome could not. Ideologically the tribunes are calling for the poor to assert their rights, Cincinnatus is arguing for the poor to recognise that Rome's right is higher than theirs. This call disarms the tribunes effectively because it takes away the weapon of refusing conscription.

But it is incredibly powerful- particularly for Livy. Livy calls Cincinnatus a great man later, but he also at the time calls the tribunes insurrectionaries (III 18). He is a historian after all of Rome- and ultimately the argument for the entity of Rome is made by Cincinnatus and not the tribunes- the argument of the senate carries more conviction with a historian or a poet (think of Virgil) whose unit of analysis is the mystical entity of a nation state. Analysed from the perspective of a plebeian who wanted land- the original dispute here was about land- the virtue of the mystical entity as opposed to a crust of bread may not be so obvious- but for Livy the populace lack the attachment to Rome that, as we have seen, in his eyes is a mark of civility. Political community or polis is separated from the Aequi and Volsci by the love of its citizens for their community: Patriotism in this sense is not merely a virtue but a marker of civility. As the patrician argument against the plebeians is a patriotic one and Livy's history is by its nature patriotic too, it is no surprise to find him admiring the virtues of a patrician partisan like Cincinnatus and despising the rebellious tribunes.

1 comments:

Crushed said...

I suppose there is always the question of just how we regard Livy, in terms of what his history IS.

I kind of see him as a kind of Lord Macauley, with Tacitus being a sot of AJP Taylor and Suetonius little better than the News of the World.

But I see Livy as kind of writing a Whig history- history written with an end in mind, the end being th prsent, the here and now or 'How Rome became the power it did.'